The frenzied and the moon-mad

We can only guess how much early medieval doctors thought of insanity as an illness or as a devil-infliction. In Bald’s Leechbook, some remedies for mental illness sound like they are definitely intended for a physical problem, and it is called madness, insanity, or frenzy. Other remedies are for “night goers” and those who are afflicted by the devil. Was this some type of psychosis? It would make sense that mania would be viewed as a physical ailment of frenzy, while psychosis was seen as caused by a devil. But we don’t know.

In entry 41, Bald begins with a general herbal drink for “all the enemy’s temptations.” (Pollington, Leechcraft) There’s no further elaboration about what these might be, but the preparation of the drink lets us know that it’s looking past heartburn and pocks, to something vaguer and more threatening. Seven herbs are to be placed under the church’s altar; they remain in place until nine masses have been sung. Then they are crushed into holy water, and the patient must drink this on an empty stomach in the morning. Additionally, holy water is to be sprinkled on his food.┬áThere’s a salve in 41, too; like the drink, the herbal butter-salve must go under the altar for nine masses. The patient is anointed with this salve in symbolic places: temples, forehead, head, chest, ribs.

If this wasn’t hint enough that some of the targeted ailments are signs of mental illness, the next line in the same entry says it outright: “To cure an insane man.” There are two drink instructions, but neither needs holy water. They are both ale-based, with specific herbal ingredients that are quite different from the first drink. The full cure requires more: drip a few drops of a cold bath into the drink, then put the man into the cold bath three times. Give him a meal of holy bread, cheese, garlic, and cropleek, with the first drink; put the salve all over him, and “when he is better,” make him drink the second one. I think both of these drinks are purges; the second one is called a “strong purgative drink.” One of the ingredients may be from the castor-oil plant.

Entry 61 has a salve for “elvish kin, nightgoers, and with whom the devil has intercourse.” Since the early Germanic idea of disease included attacks of these kinds, Bald could be talking about any disease. However, again the salve instructions show us that it’s for something vaguer and more threatening than usual. Thirteen herbs are to sit in a bowl under the altar until nine masses have gone by; then they are boiled in butter and sheep fat, with holy salt added, and when it’s strained off, the plant matter has to be thrown into running water. The salve goes on the face and eyes, as well as on anything else that stands out as sore. Additionally, the patient is “smoked” and the sign of the cross made over him frequently.

For “frenzy,” perhaps meaning mania, there was just a light drink, but it required very special preparation. It began just before dawn, singing the litany in church, and then proceeding outdoors while singing the Credo and Pater Noster. On arriving at one of the eight named plants (including radish), he must walk around it three times. These plants required twelve masses!

Radishes were a good enough solution by themselves, for a woman’s madness. She was to fast for a day and eat radish roots at night; this remedy protected people from violent attack for at least one day.

For moon-madness, there was one simple treatment. Make a whip out of a dolphin’s hide. Beat the mad person. This was guaranteed to work, and there is a translator’s note: a later hand had added to the manuscript the word AMEN.

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